How the Underground Railroad Worked

A Ride on the Underground Railroad

The M'Clintock House in Waterloo, N.Y., was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The M'Clintock House in Waterloo, N.Y., was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Photo courtesy National Park Service

Because of the secretive nature of the Underground Railroad, its exact origins are hard to trace. There are many theories about how it started, but no hard answers. Its organizers couldn't exactly put "open for business" ads in their local newspapers. The fact that the actual railroad system wasn't invented until the 1820s gives us some clues about timing -- if there was an escape system before then, it probably wasn't called the Underground Railroad. In the early 1800s, runaways mostly relied on spontaneous help from strangers. By the 1820s, anti-slavery groups were beginning to form, and by the 1840s, there was an organized network that aided fugitive slaves.

Let's take a look at what a trip on the Underground Railroad might have been like. Each journey was different, but we'll focus on the mid-1800s, which was the height of the Underground Railroad. (There is evidence of escaped slaves throughout American history, even in letters from George Washington, but these were mostly isolated incidents.)

Free blacks would sometimes send a field agent -- often a traveling minister or doctor posing as salesperson or census-taker -- to make contact with a slave who wanted to escape. This took some time because the agent had to gain the potential runaway's trust. The agent arranged for the slave's initial escape from the plantation and would then hand him off to a conductor for the first leg of the journey.

The conductor guided the fugitive to the first station, usually a house along the route (slave quarters were also often used). Stations were typically spaced a day's journey apart. The head of the household, known as the stationmaster, usually had the responsibility of keeping the slave safe. These homes often had secret passages and secret compartments for hiding multiple fugitives.

At the station, the fugitive would be fed, sheltered and possibly given a disguise. A disguise could be as simple as a rake (so the escaped could pose as a traveling worker) -- but it wasn't uncommon to dress a runaway as a member of the opposite sex. In Wilbur H. Siebert's definitive work, "The Underground Railroad," he tells of a fugitive, disguised as an upper-class white woman, being lent a white baby as part of her disguise [source: Siebert]. All of these activities were funded by people known as stockholders, who often gave the money for bribes and any other expenses.

Runaways usually didn't travel alone -- conductors typically guided them to the stations. Sometimes, though, because of lack of personnel or trip length, the escaped slave wouldn't have company. So he would have to move at night, following the North Star, and hide during the day. According to Siebert, "When clouds obscured the stars they had recourse, perhaps, to such bits of homely knowledge as, that in forests the trunks of trees are commonly moss-grown on their north sides" [source: Siebert].

The branches or "lines" of the Underground Railroad were purposely convoluted and zigzagged to confuse slave hunters, but this also sometimes hindered the fugitives.There are numerous stories of runaways getting lost and going weeks out of their way or heading further south by accident. And while clear nights were best for traveling, rainy days were also helpful because fewer people were out.

So what happened when an escaped slave finally made it to the North? Read on to find out.